Michelle Maykin, 26, is a Vietnamese/ Chinese American with acute myeloid leukemia. Fighting to find a bone marrow match by June 21 for a life-saving operation, she launched Project Michelle (projectmichelle.com), a grassroots group helping to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who are registered bone marrow donors.
A patient in need of a transplant has a better chance of finding a match within her own ethnic/racial subgroup. Asians make up only 7 percent of the entire bone marrow registry. Caucasians have an 80 percent chance of finding a match, while minorities have a 35 to 45 percent chance. Only 30 to 40 percent of Asians donate after registering, while the rate is 70 to 80 percent for all other ethnic groups.
Asians who register may save lives. That’s why we’re particularly happy to hear that a Chinese friend was a match for a child with leukemia. He may be able to donate. The bad news: He is a man who has had sex with another man within the last five years.
Question 6 on the initial marrow registration reads: “In the past five years, have you had sex, even once, with another male?” (male only). If “yes,” you must disqualify yourself from the program without further screening.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration disqualifies blood donations from any man who has had sex with a man since 1977. The FDA claims that this is a ban on donations from men who are sexually active with other men, not gay men. By this definition, however, most gay and bisexual men are excluded.
The screening process for bone marrow donors excludes potentially healthy donors for no legitimate reason. When our friend registered nearly 12 years ago, he hadn’t had sex with a man; he was and still is HIV-negative. Many gay Asian men have tried to donate blood or marrow and were rejected. Is this a public health issue that prevents those needing marrow and blood from getting infected with a disease like HIV/AIDS?
The ban was formed in the 1980s when we were gripped by a disease with an unknown dormancy period. The face of AIDS then: gay, white, male. Today, sophisticated tests can indicate HIV within three months or less. High rates of new AIDS cases aren’t limited to men having sex with men. Blood and marrow donations are strictly tested for the presence of diseases like HIV. Only those who’ve contracted HIV in the one to two month window before donating would not be screened out by modern medical technology.
HIV/AIDS is a global pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that if rates continue, women with HIV will outnumber men worldwide. African American women were more likely in the past five years to become infected with HIV/AIDS than any other group, including gay men. Poor women of color and other at-risk groups suffer from the stereotype that HIV/AIDS is a “gay disease.” This prevents needed education.
The Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks have called upon the FDA to change its “scientifically and medically unwarranted” gay exclusion policy to a period of 12 months, bringing it in line with other risk groups (injection drug users and sex workers). If the FDA’s intent is to stop HIV from entering the blood supply, why hasn’t the FDA changed its prohibition to high-risk sexual practices during a shorter period rather than targeting a specific group? HIV transmission does not differentiate between men and women who have unprotected anal sex with men.
Keep in mind that questions about sexual history are answered solely on the honor system. The Red Cross warned that continuing scientifically unfair policies may give incentive for people to provide less information, or not donate. If people can be trusted about whether or not they’re HIV positive, then they should be trusted to account for high-risk behavior and the time of their last HIV test.
Bone marrow matches are rare. Current rules mean that potential donors are never typed or tested into the national registry. Changing the ban would prevent us from turning away healthy donors.
Please register your marrow. If anybody wants more potentially life-saving marrow or blood — we may know a few good men. It seems silly to fight an outdated policy when Michelle needs a match by June 21.
Noel Alumit wrote the bestselling novel Talking to the Moon. He has been an AIDS advocate for the last 17 years. Serena Lin is a poet, essayist, novelist and attorney residing in Los Angeles.